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Justice for David Wong PDF Print E-mail
Rubin “The Hurricane” Carter sat in prison for over 20 years for murders he did not commit, until he was finally freed due to the work of dedicated activists.  He had his life portrayed on the big screen in “The Hurricane.”  Some of you may have seen the it and reveled in the ending where Carter is freed, but did you know that we also have our own “Hurricane” story? Like Hurricane Carter, David Wong sits in a New York prison cell convicted of a crime he did not commit.

He was accused of murdering a prison inmate, although he never met the victim, was nowhere near him when the killing occurred, and was not given a translator in his dialect.  The conviction rested primarily on the testimony of self-interested criminals. The sad story is that many poor immigrants like Wong are channeled through the criminal justice system without the full benefits of competent counsel and translators. The David Wong Support Committee is working on his behalf, as are many Asian American student groups and the ubiquitous Asian American activist Yuri Kochiyama.  

Donations to the David Wong Support Committee should be mailed to:

The David Wong Support Committee
P.O. Box 525-236
Flushing, NY  11352

Lost Time

By Jungwon Kim
A. Magazine
June/July 1999

After serving fourteen years behind bars for a highly questionable murder conviction, David Wong is hoping for another day in court

The flat glare of early afternoon streams through a single window in the interview room of the Auburn State Correctional Facility in upstate New York, bouncing off the surface of a wall clock behind David Kin Chin Wong. Speaking in measured, even tones and never once shifting in his chair, Wong, an undocumented Chinese immigrant who has spent nearly half of his life in prison, sits with the unearthly stillness of a man who has conquered time.

In 1984, a twenty-one-year-old Wong began serving time for armed robbery. A couple of years into his term, he was accused of fatally stabbing another inmate, and in 1987 he was convicted of second-degree murder-and given an indeterminate sentence of twenty-five to life. In the twelve years since, Wong has steadfastly maintained his innocence, and his case has trudged through the filing cabinets of new York State's labyrinthine court system. And for twelve years, Wong has been playing a waiting game that, in the words of his present attorney. is "coming to the endgame." On April 16 of this year, Judge George Bundy Smith of the New York State Court of Appeals-the state's highest courts-rejected Wong's final possible request to appeal his murder conviction. "I was expecting this," says Wong, now thirty-six years old, of the decision. "I don't have any faith in this racist court system."

Wong and his lawyers have exhausted every legal avenue available to them at the state level and are now working on a federal habeas corpus petition, a precious last-ditch opportunity to ask the general court to determine whether the original conviction violated his federal constitutional rights. Along the tortuous road to this point, the case has drawn widespread attention (including a 1993 A.Magazine report) to the inadequacies of the US. criminal justice system in dealing with Asian and other non-English speaking immigrant criminal defendants.

"A lot of times people think if they come to prison, they can do their time and go back on the streets again," Wong muses. "But that's not the case, because once you come into prison, there's no guarantee the door will ever open for you. Anything can happen."

When Wong recounts the circumstances that led him from a tiny sleepy farming village in the southern Chinese province of Fujian to the maximum security prison in which the world's first legal execution by electric chair took place, it is with a combination of restrained regret and resignation toward a series events befitting the machinations of gods in a Greek tragedy. "If we stayed in China, all we could do is work in the fields," he says of his decision to journey to New York City in the early '80s, at age eighteen, without papers, poor and alone. After drifting through Alabama and Washington, DC., Wong made his way back to Manhattan's Chinatown and found work with a contractor known only to Wong as "Goh." Following a financial dispute with a restaurant owner, says Wong, the two of them went out to the owner's Long Island home to settle the score. Only Wong was caught-and he alone ended up with an eight to twenty-five year sentence for armed robbery.

It was at Clinton State Correctional Facility in Dannemora, NY. , where Wong had begun serving his robbery sentence, that his fate was locked in place. On March 12, 1986, Tyrone Julius, an inmate whom Wong says he never knew, was fatally stabbed in the prison yard. The authorities did not search everyone in the yard, nor did they take statements from several inmates who saw the incident, but they did pluck Wong and the only other Asian inmate from a sea of 700 green-clad prisoners in the yard. They two were interrogated, and Wong was charged with murder. Despite the absence of any physical evidence, an all-white jury convicted Wong based on the testimony of Peter Dellfava, another inmate with a rap sheet several pages long, and Richard LaPierre, a prison guard who admitted to lifting his binoculars up after the incident occurred-yet still identified Wong from an eighty-foot watchtower more than 100 yards away.

Wong had no interpreter for several court proceedings that took place over ten months following his arraignment in June 1986, and his court-appointed lawyers mistakenly informed the judge that Wong's native language was Cantonese. When it came time to hire an interpreter for the trial, the court located a professional who spoke Wong's native Fujianese dialect but balked at the day rate of $225-$250, which far exceeded the state's $80 allowance. Instead, after making inquiries at various Chinese restaurants, the court obtained the services of Jo-An Ting, a secretary who had no courtroom experience and spoke only Mandarin-a dialect about as close to Fuzhounese as Latin is to French.

The linguistic barrier Wong struggled with during his early years in the "system" was one of the primary arguments of his appeal and a rallying cry for activists concerned with the legal rights of indigent Asian immigrants. "To testify in a language not his own and then to have that related to the jury by someone who had neither the training nor the experience to translate-that made for a sham," says Gabor Rona, his present attorney, from his spartan office at the Center for Constitutional Rights in Manhattan. Since taking on the case last year, Rona has been working the constitutional angle. "If you can't effectively communicate, then you cannot effectively exercise any of your rights, except maybe the right to remain silent," he explains.

While the latest court decision came with no explanation, a separate December ruling by an intermediate court yields some insight into the attitude of the criminal justice system toward the problem of language. In a court brief, Penelope Clute, the District Attorney of Clinton County, declares that Wong "had considerable capacity to understand and speak English at the time of the pre-trial and trial proceedings" and cites an affidavit by Wong's English teacher at Clinton describing Wong as "an exceptionally motivated and talented student." What Clute does not mention, however, is the teacher's assessment of Wong's English at the end of that same statement: "It is my opinion that Mr. Wong could read at a fourth grade level." In the end, the judge decided that the interpreter issue was moot because Wong never complained during the course of the trial and also because his lawyers didn't raise the issue upon direct appeal.

"David was the victim of bad lawyering," says Rona. "There was a series of missteps, and whether it was ignorance of laziness, I don't know."

As for Wong's explanation for his reticence during the trial, he says, "I was very afraid that if I said anything bad, Mrs. Ting might be taken away, and I would be left with no interpreter."

Linguistic problems have become increasingly common as the nation's roaring prison-industrial complex pulls Asians into its wake. Over the past twenty years, the number of Asian-born inmates in New York State prisons has climbed steadily, while the number of Asians in federal prisons has quadrupled-mirroring the overall increase in the US. federal prison population.

By and large, state courts have been sluggish in responding to the surge of Asian immigration and subsequent increase of Asian criminal defendants who are too poor to hire their own interpreters. In 1993, the New York City Bar Association issued a critical report on interpreter services in New York state courts. "No standard procedure exists for selecting or monitoring interpreters," the report states in reference to languages other than Spanish, and it goes on to cite an instance in which a Queens Criminal Court clerk "obtained the assistance of a Korean interpreter by going to a nearby Korean grocer and imposing on the owner's generosity."

David Bookstaver, a spokesman for the New York State Office of Court Administration (OCA), says New York state courts have in recent years made "great strides" in their efforts to remedy the shortage of qualified interpreters. At present, ten of the OCA's 250 full-time interpreters speak one of the three Asian languages: Mandarin, Cantonese, and Korean. The OCA has administered written and oral examinations for these languages since 1992 and is currently developing written exams to be implemented by summer.

While courts keep registries of freelance interpreters who have passed the exams for Mandarin, Cantonese or Korean, the shortage of Asian-language bilinguals is still dire-especially for less common languages. In the Fourth District, which is comprised of eleven counties (including Clinton County), there is but one Mandarin speaker on the roster. When an interpreter for a different Asian language is needed, Bookstaver explains, the courts hire interpreters on a case-by-case basis, sometimes through the consulate of the defendant's country of origin. But there are no testing procedures yet for many languages, and the current New York State court day rate of $125 is still less than half the amount certified interpreters earn in federal court.

Moreover, even the presence of an appropriate per diem interpreter does not necessarily unfetter the bound tongue of an indigent defendant. Eddie Chao, the Fourth District's single Mandarin speaker, explains, "You have to understand the interpretation is done for the court, not the defendant. Unless the court asks me, the defendant does not have the right to ask me for a translation of what's going on."

Margaret Fung of the New York City-based Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund concludes, "There's a lack of consistency in the different court systems. Court personnel, and in some instances judges, are not aware of the differences in spoken dialects. So that's a very big education project that needs to go on in many court systems."

The Center for Constitutional Rights took on Wong's case pro bono five years ago, and Rona's predecessors began to focus on court procedural issues in addition to the linguistic problem. Rona continues to argue that the District Attorney at the time, Andrew W. Ryan, violated the Brady rule, which requires the prosecution to fully disclose any benefits offered to a criminal witness in exchange for testimony. Although Ryan wrote a letter to the Clinton Parole Board on behalf of Peter Dellfava, the inmate who testified against Wong, the appeals, the existence of the letter was belatedly revealed to the defense lawyers during the trial-and the prosecution failed to turn over the document until two years after the trial. What's more, Ryan told the jury in the closing argument that "Yes, I made [Dellfava] a promise, I promised I couldn't help him."

The state's higher courts have maintained that there was no harm in the prosecution's failure to disclose the letter. But while it seems obvious now that the District Attorney essentially bought Dellfava's testimony with his favorable missive to the parole board, Rona believes the link was not made explicit enough for the jury. "The violation is made all the more stark by the fact that Mr. Ryan not only wrote the letter himself, but was also the trial prosecutor," he concludes, adding that he "therefore knew of the defendant's specific and explicit request for the letter by subpoena."

The Court's April decision not to grant Wong an appeal was crushing news to his New York City based support committee, a kaleidoscopic group of activists, students and even corporate lawyers that has been meeting every few weeks since 1992. Longtime backers like Wayne Lum, a postal worker who made the six-hours journey to visit Wong in spring (with a bag of canned Asian vegetables in tow), reacted emotionally. "It really hit me," he says. "It makes you wonder what kind of action is necessary to make the system react."

Each time Wong has encountered a brick wall in the past, however, his supporters have dug in their heels. Their mission has stretched beyond the particulars of this case. "It's a way to confront the Asian American community and have them wake up to what's going on in the criminal justice system," says Patti Choy, a David Wong Support Committee member who has developed a long-running telephone friendship with Wong.

At the hub of the group is Yuri Kochiyama, a veteran activist who, along with her late husband Bill Kochiyama, has been a major force behind the fund-raising, mass mailings and rallies. Her ties to numerous political causes were evident at the committee's spring benefit in Manhattan's Chinatown, a boisterous affair that raised $8000 in donations and drew 230 people of just about every age and hue- from Chinese Americans and Cherokees to Laotians and former Black Panthers.

In a speech that drew thunderous applause at the benefit, she said, "To all the supporters here tonight, you are David's lifeline-remember that. Help make his name a household word."

The support committee's mission seems to be picking up momentum. After an article about Wong appeared on the front page of the New York Times Metro section in April, Kochiyama says a slew people called to inquire about his case, including a Korean American doctor offering Wong free medical services and a Lubovitch rabbinical student in Brooklyn.

In the meantime, Rona has continued for the final round of legal proceedings and continuing his search for new evidence in the case. In April, he hired a private investigator to locate inmates who saw what happened in the prison yard on that cold spring day in 1986. To date, seven inmates have already given sworn statements that they witnessed the stabbing and that Wong was not the perpetrator, but the state appeals court turned this evidence away on the grounds that his original lawyers could hand should have obtained the statements before the trial. Among other leads: the widow of Tyrone Julius told the New York Times that she received an anonymous letter and two phone calls from men warning her to stop looking into the murder of her husband.

Yet despite the efforts of his lawyers and supporters, Wong remains carefully detached from the outcome. He is acutely aware that if his conviction is once again confirmed, his chances of obtaining a federal appeal are so infinitesimal that spending the next two decades in prison is a distinct possibility.

His philosophical outlook may be the result of a long inner journey, one that took place within the confines of his cell. After a brief conversion to Islam during his early years in prison, Wong has become a self-taught student of Buddhism, Taoism and physics.

"Religion is a way of life," he reflects. "Whatever we believe, whatever we understand, we manifest through daily life." That attitude has led him to see the work of his support committee beyond personal terms. "I hope their efforts make a better system for the next generation."

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